CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Religious Minorities and Anti-Cult Opposition. The Italian Situation in Comparative Perspective

A paper presented on June 9, 2001 at the international conference Freiheit und Gleicheit von Religionen und Weltanschauungen organized by the University of Heidelberg at its Internationales Wissenschaftsforum

by Massimo Introvigne

When compared to France, Belgium, or Germany, the Italian political and legal environment is surprisingly favourable for religious minorities, including the most controversial ones. International sources, including yearly reports on religious liberty issued by the U.S. Department of State, the Helsinki Commission, and the United Nations, suggest that Italy, comparatively speaking, offers one of the best environments for religious minorities. Unlike France, Germany, and Belgium, there is no official anti-cult activity, although there is some police watching of "cults." However, when a police report (although more moderate than its French or Belgian counterparts) was disclosed in 1998[1], political criticism was directed primarily against the police for possible breaches of religious liberty rather than against the "cults" themselves[2]. Anti-cult movements in Italy are small, under-financed, and not particularly active. Even the most controversial religious movements operate in Italy in a climate of freedom and have consistently won their most important court cases. On 15 November 1991, the Rome Court determined that "flirty-fishing," as practised by The Family (formerly known as the Children of God), was not tantamount to prostitution and not illegal per se under Italian law[3]. The Supreme Court has also determined, on two separate occasions, that Scientology is a religion, although it also maintained that Narconon, the drug rehabilitation program run by Scientology, is not in itself religious and, in consequence, not tax-exempt. A leading judge in Rome investigating the Unification Church for possible mistreatment of its members closed the case with no indictments in 1980. Jehovah’s Witnesses, denounced in France as the epitome of dangerous "sects," have entered into a concordat signed by the Italian Prime Minister on 20 March 2000, allowing them to receive public funding. The concordat is due for ratification by Parliament, and some opposition is expected, particularly after a popular petition against ratification gathered thousands of signatures. The Assemblies of God and the Seventh-day Adventists, investigated as possible "cults" in Belgium, already receive taxpayers’ money under similar concordats in Italy. All this may seem rather strange, when one considers that religious liberty is a fairly recent phenomenon in Italy (it was only incorporated after World War II into the country’s new Constitution), and Catholic influence is probably more dominant here than anywhere else in the world. I would discuss the historical evolution of Italian Law on religious liberty, then focus on some contemporary political problems, and conclude with a case study of Scientology under Italian law.

The unification of Italy was achieved by the Kingdom of Savoy, later the Kingdom of Italy, against the vocal opposition of the Roman Catholic Church. Many among the fathers of contemporary Italy were secular humanists. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church, whilst officially in a situation of conflict with the State, remained enormously influential. This explains why the early Kingdom of Italy, although officially hostile to the Catholic Church (and sympathetic to minorities), granted them what laws called "tolerance" rather than religious liberty. In fact, proselytization by non-Catholics was restricted by a rather vague and general notion of "public order" and, more often than not, depended on the good will of the local police. In 1929 the Fascist regime made its peace with the Roman Catholic Church through the Concordat of 1929. In the same year, the regime created the first complete regulation of religious minorities with Law No. 1159 of June 24, 1929 (the corresponding rules were published on February 28, 1930)[4]. Religious minorities "admitted" by the State had some basic rights, including a partial tax exemption, the right to preach and to perform legally valid marriages, but (once again) within the limits of "public order" and "public morality". Politically, in its early stages, the Fascist regime did not want to alienate religious minorities (the situation will change later), and it also wanted to restrict the power of the Catholic Church by keeping somewhat in touch with other religions as well. In the 1930s the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Fascist regime became more strict, particularly at the local level, and Law No. 1159 was interpreted restrictively. When the local Catholic priest complained that a group or a preacher was disturbing his activities, it was always possible for a local police officer (or a judge) to conclude that the dissenters were going beyond "public order" or "public morality". An infamous national incident was created by a circular letter by the Ministry of Internal Affairs dated May 9, 1935, closing all Pentecostal churches as contrary not only to "public order" but also to the "integrity of the race" (in the meantime, a racist doctrine had entered Fascism). During World War II, several minorities (including Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) in fact experienced persecution, and Protestants in general were discriminated[5]. After the War, governments were dominated by Christian Democrats, who found convenient not to change both Law 1159 and a political attitude generally suspicious of religious minorities, notwithstanding the new Constitution which, for the first time, guaranteed "religious liberty" under Sections 8, 19 and 20, and not only "tolerance" for the minorities. For example, the anti-Pentecostal circular letter was officially declared as no longer effective only on April 16, 1955. Religious minorities were subject to various forms of discriminations well into the 1950s. It was only during the 1960s, in a number of Constitutional Court decisions, that what remained of the anti-Protestant measures was effectively dismantled (after Vatican II, with no opposition and the full approval of the Roman Catholic Church). The memory of this period of discrimination is still painful for Protestants and explains why Evangelical counter-cultism has such a limited presence in Italy. When foreign material written against groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons is translated by Italian Evangelicals, a foreword usually explains that strong theological criticism does not imply that these groups should be discriminated against by the state. The Fascist regime also introduced criminal legislation against "plagio," a word whose contemporary translation into English should in fact be "brainwashing" (although Italian legislation was passed well before this word was coined in the U.S.). On 8 June 1981, the Constitutional Court declared Section 603 of the Italian Criminal Code incompatible with a democratic constitution, thus eliminating plagio from Italian law and making it more difficult to reintroduce anti-brainwashing legislation[6]. The Supreme Court also changed a number of provisions of Law No. 1159. It is still in force, but it should be interpreted within the framework of the Constitutional Court case law. A number of legal authors have concluded that the general limit of "public order" is (implicitly) no longer in force, while the limit of "public morality" probably is.

A consequence of the Constitutional re-interpretation of Law No. 1159 is that provisions about religious liberty are scattered among different laws, which in turn should be interpreted according to the decisions of the Constitutional Court. Hence the need for a new law that, even without introducing any crucial new provision, would summarise in a single text the rules of religious liberty in Italy. Under the Prodi (1996), D’Alema (1999) and Amato (2000) governments, the majority introduced a text (draft law No. 3947), supported by a part of the opposition as well, and whose main author is MP (now former MP) Domenico Maselli (a Waldensian). During the year 2000, it seemed probable that the law would have been approved before the 2001 elections. The law became a matter of electoral debate, however, since a part of the opposition (which became the current majority after the May 2001 elections) regarded it as too liberal, and potentially favourable to the interests of Islam. While "cults" or "new religious movements" are not an electoral issue in Italy, Islam and immigration are, and all political parties are very cautious when it comes to Islamic issues. An interesting provision of Draft Law No. 3947 (in its text of October 19, 2000) was that it originally called in its Section 13-bis for the creation of an "Observatory of Religious Liberty" (although this provision was later eliminated for lack of funds). Unlike the observatories and commissions on "cults" and "sects" of a number of other countries, the Observatory was called to prepare yearly reports, in association with scholars and scholarly institutions, about the presence of the various religions (not only "cults", or "sects") in Italy.

A new law on religious liberty would be convenient, but would not change the key features of the Italian legal system, which is currently based on the post-war Constitution and the 1984 revision of the Concordat with the Roman Catholic Church. Under the present system (unlike in Germany, for instance), all Italian citizens are obliged to pay a church tax (also called "cultural" tax by some legal authors) amounting to 0.8 percent of their total income tax bill. While in Germany taxpayers claiming to be secular may abstain from paying the religious tax, in Italy the religious tax payment is statutory. The law does allow, however, for taxpayers to opt that their payment be given to secular charities, or to leave the corresponding section on the tax form blank. In that case, their money is divided among the religious bodies which have elected to participate in the corresponding division. Although the Constitution provides that only the treaty with the Catholic Church is given the status of a "Concordat" (with a capital C), a number of other denominations and churches have smaller concordats called "intese," which grant them very similar financial and other benefits. Participating religious bodies include Waldensians and Methodists (these two churches merged in 1975), Baptists (who, however, so far have decided not to receive their share of the religious tax), Lutherans, Jews, the Assemblies of God, and the Seventh-day Adventists. In 2000, the Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema signed concordats with the Italian Buddhist Union and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and these await parliamentary approval at the time of this writing, while negotiations with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormon Church), the Apostolic Church (another Pentecostal body), the Greek Orthodox Church, Soka Gakkai, and the Italian Hindu Union are on their way, and different Islamic organizations have also submitted their proposals. Polls show that a very large majority of Italians support the system. Secular humanist organizations are generally fairly vocal opponents, although one of them, the National Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics, once claimed to be a religion and tried unsuccessfully to enter into a concordat itself. Although secular humanism is a small minority in Italy, it is somewhat over-represented both among the media and the intellectual elite and is regarded by religionists as a real threat. This explains why mainline churches are extremely reluctant to oppose new entries into the concordats-religious tax system. They are afraid to "rock the boat," and to open the whole system (extremely beneficial to them) to debate and controversy. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses are not particularly popular among other religions, most Protestant bodies, in fact, supported their application for a concordat, and the Roman Catholic Church remained officially silent (although criticism from individual priests was not uncommon, and many of them signed a popular petition against the "intesa", promoted by individual anti-cultists and ex-members). Again in the electoral climate of early 2001, some opposition politicians did oppose both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Buddhists concordats, a position which also betrays the fear of a possible future concordat with Islam. Both Witnesses and Buddhists are, thus, becoming a test case for the continuing efficiency of the Italian system, which so far has worked quite well. It remains important to emphasise, on the other hand, that even without "intese", religious bodies (including the Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) may receive generous tax exemptions and a number of other advantages. The "intese" define a smaller "club" of religions acknowledged by the State as reliable partners, but even without a concordat most religions in Italy are better off than in a number of neighbouring countries.

With the possible and recent exception of Islam, religious minorities are not regarded as a potentially controversial issue in Italy. The difference of the Italian situation with respect to Germany or France calls for a political explanation. I would suggest, firstly, that religious minorities are not seen as particularly threatening in Italy, simply because they are comparatively small. The Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy (co-edited by this writer)[7] lists more than six hundred religious bodies active on Italian soil. However, the combined membership of such bodies (excluding the Roman Catholic Church) amounts only to 1.92% of the total Italian population. The situation changes somewhat, however, when one considers not only the Italian population but also the foreign workers and legal and illegal immigrants (who are not Italian citizens). In this case, members of religious minorities amount roughly to 3.50% of Italy’s total population. Most immigrants, however, are not members of new religious movements (NRMs), but are Moslem (with, in consequence, a growing concern about Islam in certain quarters), or Eastern Orthodox from Romania, Yugoslavia and Russia (this latter religious minority is not regarded as particularly threatening). Religious minorities other than Islam, therefore, are often perceived as a mere footnote to the Italian religious scene as a whole, and voices are even heard among academics claiming that funds should not be wasted on social scientific studies on them.

Another reason why discrimination against minorities are not popular in Italy is the eagerness of all political forces (and, to some extent, the Catholic Church itself) to disassociate themselves from the Fascist persecution of minorities. Yet another difference between Italy and (particularly) France and French-speaking Belgium regards the role of Freemasonry. "Cult" and "sect" were labels frequently used by the Roman Catholic Church and by left-wing political critics against Italian Freemasonry, an organization which, for decades, was often the most vocal exponent of secular humanism (for which it had to sever its ties with British and American Masonic bodies). Freemasonry was also an occasional critic of the large Italian Communist Party. The only "anti-cult" legislation proposed and occasionally passed in Italy was, in fact, anti-Masonic. In the 1980s and 1990s, after two Masonic scandals, left-wing governments passed laws and orders (still in force) preventing Freemasons from holding positions in the national judiciary or as presidents, for instance, of some of the country’s Chambers of Commerce. While in France and other countries secular "continental" Masonic bodies (separated from non-anticlerical British and American Freemasonry) are very active in promoting anti-cult crusades, Italian Freemasonry has, understandably, developed a very different attitude over the years, simply because it has learned through experience that anti-cult campaigns in Italy often provoke new anti-Masonic legislation.

Scholars in Italy have (as in the United States, and unlike in France and Germany) a history of being fairly pro-active and of siding with underdogs, religious and otherwise. Unlike the situation in France, however, there has also been a substantial body of empirical research on NRMs since, at least, the 1980s. Published social scientific and historical literature about NRMs is possibly twice as large as in France. A good seventy percent of this literature, in the form of some fifty books and hundreds of journal articles and chapters, has been produced by scholars associated with CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, established in Turin in 1988. From its very beginning, CESNUR has had an international board whose most active members are internationally well-known critics of the anti-cult movement. During its twelve years of existence, CESNUR has been a frequent consultant to public institutions, law enforcement agencies, and mainline religious bodies; its courses, seminars, and reports (supplemented by several hundred media interviews) have helped spread a non-anti-cult perspective on religious minority issues in Italy.

In nearby France, politics is still dominated by a secular humanist "old left" with a paternalistic view of government and state. In Germany, anti-cult crusades are often led by an "old right" enjoying close connections with established churches and a general law-and-order attitude. In Italian politics, by contrast, there is a certain prevalence of a "new left" and a "new right," obviously different from each other, but both anti-paternalistic and libertarian. Both have opposed any attempt to widen state control of religion or anti-cult activity. A graphic illustration of this point is the joint representation by two senior lawyers on behalf of the Church of Scientology in recent court cases. One of the lawyers was a former cabinet minister from the libertarian wing of the conservative party "Forza Italia," and the other an equally libertarian MP from a small neo-Marxist left-wing party. Such legal representation on behalf of Scientology by prominent politicians who also happen to be lawyers would be unthinkable in France or Germany.

These results might be questioned by a non-Italian observer reaching his or her conclusion on the basis of information derived from the Internet. Some of the most extreme anti-cult Web sites are run by Italians (although they are occasionally hosted by foreign providers in order to bypass Italian law restrictions). The Italian Roman Catholic counter-cult organization GRIS also has a significant international presence both in Europe and in Latin America, and a small Web site. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it remains the case that the most well-known Italian anti-cultists operate almost exclusively online and have a very limited off-line presence. Their Web sites are also more influential abroad than in Italy. There is, for instance, an entire Web site (operated by a former Italian leader of New Acropolis) devoted to slandering CESNUR. In this case, however, several hundreds of pages have been online for more than three years without generating (as far as I know) a single line of comment in any of the mainline Italian media. On the other hand, the anti-CESNUR Web site (which includes many pages in languages other than Italian) has been quoted within the framework of local campaigns against "cults" (and "cult apologists") in France and Germany, and its arguments have been used by anti-cult scholars such as Stephen Kent. An anti-Soka Gakkai page based in Italy, and a large anti-Scientology Web site run by a pseudonymous "Martini," may also have a larger public impact abroad than in Italy. Most of their visitors are Italian, but the impact on the media is limited and on the academic or political community virtually non-existent. On the other hand, "Martini"’s anti-Scientology Web site is often quoted by international anti-cultists in countries other than Italy. GRIS, as mentioned earlier, is a somewhat different organization, with a real presence in several Italian cities. It boasts of having the approval of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (although several dozens of Catholic associations are similarly "approved," and "approval" does not give GRIS the right to speak for the church). In recent years, it has been plagued by internecine struggles, has exhibited different attitudes within its own local chapters, and its presence at the national level appears to be declining. It still maintains contacts, however, with several Italian Catholic bishops and with counter-cult bishops and priests in Germany, Latin America, and elsewhere.

On March 9, 2001, a French anti-cultist called Mathieu Cossu posted on the Usenet newsgroup it.cultura.religioni a confidential letter by Dr Alberto Amitrani, former President of the GRIS chapter in Rome, resigning his position as a member of GRIS’ national board (later, Amitrani left GRIS altogether). How exactly Cossu got hold of a private letter is unknown. Be it as it may be, and assuming that the letter is genuine (in following controversies, nobody has suggested that it is not), it blames the current GRIS crisis to the attitudes of the national secretary, Mr Giuseppe Ferrari, depicted as somewhat obsessed with assaulting CESNUR. Apparently, according to Amitrani, Ferrari was so busy fighting CESNUR that he neglected managing GRIS, or effectively fighting "cults". That GRIS (or, at least, it national secretary) was quite ready to co-operate with anybody in order to fight "cult apologists" and CESNUR was evidenced a few days after Cossu’s posting, when the anti-CESNUR Web site came out in favour of Ferrari in his controversy against Amitrani, with information which would seem to have been supplied by GRIS itself. Later, on May 24, 2001, the anti-CESNUR Web site covered again the controversy, by publishing a strong-worded defence of Ferrari against criticism by Dr Raffaella Di Marzio, Amitrani’s wife and the newly elected president of the Rome branch of GRIS. Quite predictably, the defence claimed that Di Marzio and Amitrani (both vocal proponents of the brainwashing argument, and critics of CESNUR) were part of a larger CESNUR conspiracy to "take over" GRIS. Participation by Di Marzio, as a speaker, in the April 2001 conference "The Spiritual Supermarket" co-organized at the London School Economics by INFORM, CESNUR and others was also mentioned as evidence of the conspiracy, despite the fact that other critics of "cults" (including David Clark, of the American Family Foundation) were also among the speakers in London, as well as in other CESNUR conferences (for instance, both Herbert Rosedale of the American Family Foundation and Priscilla Coates, an historical figure of American anti-cultism, presented papers at the CESNUR 1999 conference in Bryn Athyn). Ironically, a few days earlier the German anti-cultist Tilman Hausherr (a well-known critic of "cult apologists", and the author of articles posted on the anti-CESNUR Web site) recommended two papers by Amitrani and Di Marzio, just published on Cults & Society (the Internet journal of the American Family Foundation) to his fellow anti-cultists in the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology. How Amitrani and Di Marzio are treated by the anti-CESNUR Web site (once again, apparently working in close co-operation with GRIS’ national secretary) shows that anti-cult and counter-cult movements are no more friendly to persons they regard as "apostates" than "cults" themselves.

Generally speaking, there is only a limited degree of secular anti-cult and Catholic counter-cult activity in Italy. The Italian media, on the other hand, are just as interested in publishing lurid exposes of "dangerous cults" as anywhere else. And while the overall domestic impact of Italian anti-cultism has been quite limited, Italian anti-cultists have been lionized by the international anti-cult movement. Because a number of Italian scholars of NRMs (both associated, and not associated, with CESNUR), as well as some Italian politicians and legal experts, are among the most vocal critics of European (particularly French) anti-cultism, European anti-cultists have a vested interest in claiming that these "cult apologists" are "controversial" at home. GRIS’ national board, in particular, regards as its sacred mission (at least according to an authoritative former member such as Amitrani) to prevent Italian "cult apologists" who happen to be personally Roman Catholic from influencing Catholic attitudes about "cults" in several countries. GRIS’ claim that it has in fact prevented scholars associated with CESNUR from being invited to international Catholic events is difficult to assess. We do not know who does not invite us, and why. On the other hand, CESNUR keeps receiving more invitation to lecture both domestically and internationally (including at prestigious Catholic institutions) than it may reasonably accept[8]. When on May 27, 2001, controversial Catholic Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo married Korean acupuncturist Maria Sung in a ceremony officiated by Reverend Moon, the majority of the Italian media sought CESNUR’s opinion, including the Catholic daily newspaper Avvenire, and several Catholic radios did the same both in Italy and abroad; no comment of the incident, which had an enormous impact in Italy, appeared on GRIS’ Web site, nor were in any way GRIS’ spokespersons prominent in the national debate that followed. Finally, the Enciclopedia delle Religioni in Italia published by CESNUR in early 2001 quickly became the most reviewed non-fiction book in Italy in that time period; reviews were uniformly complimentary throughout all the spectrum of Italian mainline media, while letters of protest against "cult apologists" were simply sent by some media to CESNUR or ignored. Once again, a campaign conducted (according to Amitrani) with almost maniacal fury for several years, has elicited no apparent results in Italy, although it has occasionally been noticed and mentioned abroad ("abroad" perhaps including, in this case, the private corridors of some Vatican departments).

It is also worth noting that both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Soka Gakkai have their largest European constituencies in Italy, and the same may well be true for Scientology, although in this case hard statistics are notoriously difficult to obtain. Anti-cultists in countries such as Germany and France, understandably, like to claim that these larger Italian bodies are as controversial in Italy as they are in their respective countries. Although it would be an exaggeration to claim that Italian anti-cultism (mostly propagated via the Internet) has no impact whatsoever in Italy, it would be true to say that the material is mostly produced for export and use in other countries.

In 2000, a self-styled "disgruntled former Italian anti-cultist" published an exposé and several documents on the controversial U.S. Web site tellitall.org (where anybody, it is claimed, is allowed to post all sorts of outrageous claims, with anonymity guaranteed). The claim was made that extreme Italian anti-cult Web sites (particularly the anti-Scientology site run by "Martini") are operated by a group involved in a number of illegal activities with the secret help of Ministry of Internal Affairs officials. The Church of Scientology called the attention of several MPs to the expose, and both a parliamentary discussion and an official investigation followed. The latter suggested that, contrary to the claims on tellitall.org (which appeared to be utterly unbelievable and obviously fabricated), no governmental officer has been shown to co-operate with the extreme anti-cult Web sites, and the concerned MPs were told that any illegal activity carried out by these Web sites will, in future, be monitored and prosecuted. It remains unclear who exactly was responsible for the exposé on tellitall.org (with critics obviously pointing their fingers at the Church of Scientology itself), but the whole story illustrates that in official quarters extreme anti-cultists in Italy are regarded more as part of the problem than as part of the solution. There have also been suggestions that intelligence services of countries with a more aggressive anti-cult attitude (rather than their Italian counterparts, as the tellitall.org expose suggested) may play a part in the whole Italian imbroglio surrounding the "anti-cult terrorism via the Internet."[9] A certain pressure exerted by France against the concordat with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has undoubtedly been felt and appears to be continuing at the time of this writing. Just as Italian anti-cultism is mostly a product intended for foreign export (the Italian organization affiliated with the international anti-cult federation FECRIS, known as ARIS, is so small that it is utterly irrelevant, but again it may be taken more seriously abroad), anti-cultism from countries such as Germany and France may well be imported into Italy. Proposals to set up official commissions to investigate Italian "cults," as has already occurred in France and Germany, have also been introduced by some members of the Italian parliament. To date these proposals have not been taken too seriously, but they may herald increasing anti-cult activity in the future. The Milingo affair may also have the effect of increasing anti-cult feelings within the Roman Catholic Church, and the same may happen in case of a protracted and bitter parliamentary debate on the concordat with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On October 8, 1997 the Italian Court of Cassation (the Supreme Court for jurisdictional purposes in Italy) rendered an important decision on Scientology. I offer here a summary of the decision -- extremely important not only for the Italian case, but also for the ongoing internal debate on the nature and definition of religion[10] -- without entering here into the specific discussion about Scientology.

While some Italian courts (including Rome and Turin) have considered Scientology as a religion, a different conclusion was reached by the Court of Appeal of Milan. Reforming a first degree decision favourable to Scientology, on November 5, 1993 the Milan appeal judges found a number of Scientologists guilty of a variety of crimes, all allegedly committed before 1981, ignoring the question whether Scientology was a religion. The Italian Cassation Court, on February 9, 1995, annulled the Milan 1993 decision with remand, asking the Court of Appeal to reconsider whether Scientology was indeed a religion. On December 2, 1996 the Court of Appeal of Milan complied, but maintained that Scientology was not a religion. Not unlike their Turin homologues, the Milan appeal judges noted that "there is no legislative definition of religion" and "nowhere in the [Italian] law there is any useful element in order to distinguish a religious organization from other social groups". However, among a number of possible definitions, the Milan judges selected one defining religion as "a system of doctrines centred on the presupposition of the existence of a Supreme Being, who has a relation with humans, the latter having towards him a duty of obedience and reverence". Additional criteria based on the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court are considered, but these are clearly ancillary to the main definition. Theoretically, the reference to a "Supreme Being" may be interpreted in a non-theistic sense. This was the interpretation in the case law of the U.S. Cassation Court interpreting the Universal Military Training and Service Act of 1948, also including in its definition of religion a reference to "a relation to a Supreme Being". The Milan judges, however, interpreted "Supreme Being" in a theistic sense. As a consequence, they could easily exclude the non-theistic worldview of Scientology from the sphere of religion.

On October 9, 1997 the Cassation Court annulled also the Milan 1996 decision, again with remand (meaning that another section of the Court of Appeal of Milan shall re-examine the facts of the case: in fact, on October 5, 2000 the Court of Appeal of Milan, deciding on remand and for the third time the same case, finally closed the 20-years old saga, ended its feud with the Cassation Court, and found in favor of the Scientologists). The Cassation Court regarded the Milan theistic definition of religion as "unacceptable" and "a mistake", because it was "based only on the paradigm of Biblical religions". As such, the definition would exclude Buddhism, whose main Italian organization, the Italian Buddhist Union, has been recognized in Italy as a "religious denomination" since 1991. Buddhism, according to the Cassation Court, "certainly does not affirm the existence of a Supreme Being and, as a consequence, does not propose a direct relation of the human being with Him".

It is true, the Cassation Court observes, that "the self-definition of a group as religious is not enough in order to recognize it as a genuine religion". The Milan 1996 decision quoted the case law of the Italian Constitutional Court and its reference to the "common opinion" in order to decide whether a group is a religion. The relevant "common opinion", however, according to the Cassation Court is rather "the opinion of the scholars" than the "public opinion". The latter is normally hostile to religious minorities and, additionally, difficult to ascertain: one wonders, the Cassation Court notes, "from what source the Milan judges knew the public opinion of the whole national community". On other hand, most scholars -- according to the Cassation Court -- seem to prefer a definition of religion broad enough to include Scientology and, when asked, conclude that Scientology is in fact a religion, having as its aim "the liberation of the human spirit through the knowledge of the divine spirit residing within each human being". The 48-pages decision of the Cassation Court also examined some of the arguments used by critics (and by the Milan 1996 judges) in order to deny to Scientology the status of religion. Five main arguments were discussed.

1. First, critics object that Scientology is "syncretistic" and does not propose any really "original belief". This is, the Cassation Court argues, irrelevant, since syncretism "is not rare" among genuine religions, and many recently established Christian denominations exhibit very few "original features" when compared to older denominations.

2. Second, it is argued that Scientology is presented to perspective converts as science, not as religion. The Cassation Court replies that, at least since Thomas Aquinas, Christian theology claims to be a science. On the other hand, science claiming to lead to non-empirical results such as "a knowledge of God" (or "of human beings as gods") may be both "bad science" and "inherently religious".

3. Third, critics make reference to ex-members (mostly militant apostates such as "Atack and Armstrong", quoted in the Milan 1996 decision) who claim that Scientology is not a religion but only a facade to hide criminal activities. The Cassation Court asks how we may know that the opinion of disgruntled ex-members is representative of the larger population of ex-members. Other ex-members have in fact appeared as witnesses for the defense, and at any rate, the number of ex-members of Scientology appears to be quite large. The opinion of two and even twenty of them, thus, is hardly representative of what the average ex-member believes.

4. Fourth, texts by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and by early Italian leaders seem to imply that Scientology's basic aim is to make money. Such texts' interest in money is, according to the Cassation Court, "excessive" but "perhaps appears much less excessive if we consider how money was raised in the past by the Roman Catholic Church". The Cassation Court quotes Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles (who died because they kept for personal use a part of what they obtained from the sale of their property and lied to the bishop, rather than giving everything to him), late Medieval controversies about the sale of indulgences, and the fact that until very recently Italian Catholic churches used to affix at the church's door "a list of services offered [Masses and similar] with the corresponding costs". The latter comments, according to the Cassation Court, confirm that quid pro quo services are more widespread among religions that the Milan 1996 judges seemed to believe. Concerning Scientology, the Cassation Court went on to observe that the more "disturbing" texts on money are but a minimal part of Hubbard's enormous literary production (including "about 8,000 works"); and that they were mostly circular letters or bulletins intended "for the officers in charge of finances and the economic structure, not for the average member". Finally, even if one should take at face value the "crude" comment included in a technical bulletin of Scientology (not written by Hubbard) that "the only reason why LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] established the Church was in order to sell and deliver Dianetics and Scientology", this would not mean, according to the Cassation Court, that Scientology is not a religion. What is, in fact, the ultimate aim of "selling Dianetics and Scientology"? There is no evidence, the Cassation Court suggests, that such "sales" are only organized in order to assure the personal welfare of the leaders. If they are intended as a proselytization tool, then making money is only an intermediate aim. The ultimate aim is "proselytization", and this aim "could hardly be more typical of a religion", even if "according to the strategy of the founder [Hubbard], new converts are sought and organized through the sale and delivery of Dianetics and Scientology" .

5. A fifth objection discussed by the Cassation Court is that Scientology is not a religion since there is evidence, in the Milan case itself, that a number of Scientologists were guilty of "fraudulent sales techniques" or abused of particularly weak customers, when "selling" Dianetics or Scientology. These illegal activities, the Cassation Court comments, should be prosecuted, but there is no evidence that they are more than "occasional deviant activities" of a certain number of leaders and members within the Milan branch, "with no general significance" concerning the nature of Scientology in general .

The Italian Cassation Court 1997 decision on Scientology includes one of the most important discussions -- so far and at an international scale -- of how courts may apply existing laws apparently requiring them to decide whether a specific group is, or is not, a religion. It argues that the non-existence of a legal definition of religion in Italy (and elsewhere) "is not coincidential". Any definition would rapidly become obsolete and, in fact, limit religious liberty. It is much better, according to the Italian Cassation Court, "not to limit with a definition, always by its very nature restrictive, the broader field of religious liberty". "Religion" is an ever-evolving concept, and courts may only interpret it within the frame of a specific historical and geographical context, taking into account the opinions of the scholars.

In a further opinion filed on March 1, 2000 the Italian Cassation Court confirmed that Scientology is a religion under Italian law, but stated that the for-profit activities of Narconon, Scientology's drug rehabilitation branch, are not tax-exempt. The 1997 decision also examined Narconon's activities, and concluded that they are not illegal. The question whether they are tax-exempt did not arise in the 1997 case. The new decision confirms that Scientology is a religion, and criticizes narrow criteria "based on the hegemonic paradigm of the 'religions of the book' (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam)", which would deny to Scientology its religious status. In this sense, the 1997 decision, although some less than symphatetic comments about Narconon were also included, was affirmed. The 2000 decision also confirms (contrary to decisions of the Court of Milan overturned by the Cassation Court in 1997) that Narconon's activities are not illegal. They are, however, not tax-exempt. The Cassation Court stated that it is well possible that Narconon activities are, in turn, religious. However, the ancillary activities of a religious body, when they involve a profit, are not tax-exempt. There is, the Court says, no religious discrimination against Scientology in taxing Narconon, since ancillary profit-making activities of all religions are taxable under Italian law. While the Court mentions that Narconon's services are offered against a quid pro quo fee and are profit-making, it stops shortly of discussing whether auditing, the most typical activity of the Church of Scientology, is taxable. In fact, the Italian IRS in decisions about local branches of the Church of Scientology has decided that auditing is not taxable, and the Justice Court of Turin in a final decision came to the same conclusion, thus settling a long battle between the local branches of the Church of Scientology and of the Italian Internal Revenue Service.

The Scientology cases, thus, confirm that Italy has a somewhat more liberal approach even to controversial minorities than other European countries. Objections from some anti-cult quarters do exist, but courts tend to examine them carefully, not to accept anti-cult activism at face value, and more often than not to rule against the anti-cult position.


[1] Ministero dell'Interno, Dipartimento della Pubblica Sicurezza - Direzione Centrale Polizia di Prevenzione, Sette religiose e nuovi movimenti magici in Italia, Rome: Ministero dell'Interno 1998.

[2] See my “Much Ado About Nothing? The "Italian Report on Cults", available on CESNUR’s Web site at http://www.cesnur.org/testi/Report.htm.

[3] See my "The Children of God and The Family in Italy", in James R. Lewis - J. Gordon Melton (eds.), Sex, Slander and Salvation. Investigating The Family/Children of God, Stanford (California): Center for Academic Publication, 1994, pp. 113-120.

[4] On this law and its effects see Silvio Ferrari – Giovanni Battista Varnier, Le minoranze religiose in Italia, Cinisello Balsamo (Milan): San Paolo, 1997.

[5] See Giorgio Rochat, Regime fascista e Chiese Evangeliche, Turin: Claudiana, 1990.

[6] See, on “plagio”, Alessandro Usai, Profili penali dei condizionamenti psichici. Riflessioni sui problemi penali posti dalla fenomenologia dei nuovi movimenti religiosi, Milan: Giuffré, 1996. The essential texts of the “plagio” controversy are available in German translation in Gehirnwäsche und Sekten. Interdisziplinäre Annäherungen, Hg. von J. Gordon Melton und Massimo Introvigne (Marburg: diagonal-Verlag, 2000).

[7] See Massimo Introvigne – PierLuigi Zoccatelli – Nelly Ippolito Macrina – Verónica Roldán, Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia, Leumann (Turin): Elle Di Ci, 2001.

[8] On the other hand, GRIS’ insistence that CESNUR and scholars associated with CESNUR, even when personally Roman Catholic, do not represent a Catholic point of view may have had the unintended effect of persuading others that they are indeed reliable, being free of Catholic bias. Writing on the national newspaper La Stampa, poet Guido Ceronetti suggested on May 24, 2001 that Italy may need a Ministry of Religious Affairs, such as it exists in other countries. He went on to write: “It is quite obvious that the Minister of Religious Affairs should be picked up outside the Parliament; he or she should be as learned as possible, and super partes. Honourable characters such as Gianfranco Ravasi and Enzo Bianchi [both well-known liberal Catholic intellectuals] would not be fit for this role because they are perceived as coming from one party or church. My ideal choice would be Massimo Introvigne, an expert of both traditional and new religions, cults included” (Guido Ceronetti, “Lanternina Rossa”, La Stampa, May 24, 2001).

[9] See my “Moral Panics and Anti-Cult Terrorism in Western Europe”, Terrorism and Political Violence, vol 12, n. 12:1 (Spring 2000), pp. 47-59; and “So Many Evil Things: Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet”, in Jeffrey K. Hadden – Douglas E. Cowan (eds.), Religion on the Internet: Research Projects and Promises, Amsterdam – London - New York: JAI Press, 2000, pp. 277-306.

[10] See, on this point and on Italian Scientology legal cases (most of them unpublished, but partially available on CESNUR’s Web site), my "Religion as Claim: Social and Legal Controversies", in Jan G. Platvoet - Arie L. Molendijk, The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, Leiden - Boston – Köln: Brill, 1999, pp. 41-72

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